Let's Talk Turkey: Getting Your Middle School Student to Open Up

11/10/22

Ah, Thanksgiving. The warmth and nostalgia, the cheek-pinching aunties, and the clatter of Pyrex dishes across a long table as mashed potatoes are traded for green bean casserole. It ushers in the season of familial togetherness when we prioritize time with our loved ones in the comforts of home as fall surrenders to winter.

For many parents of teens, pre-teens, and tweens, this is a precious narrow window of time when all of their busy kiddos are under the same roof. The early morning sports practices, late-night homework binges, and weekend tournaments often come to a temporary halt. It’s the perfect time to connect with your young teenagers—whether it be about school and academic goals, friendships, dating and romantic interests, or just life overall.

Why are the holidays a good time to check in with preteens?

Middle school can be a tumultuous time developmentally, as flurries of brain growth and perpetual hormone fluctuations impact your preteen’s emotions, energy, mood, and even personality. Parents sometimes feel helplessly frustrated because they, once middle-schoolers themselves, understand the general perspective of a these struggles—issues with identity, social circles, extracurricular and athletic interests, puberty, and bullying—but perhaps not the micro-nuances of the current generation.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to share quiet, meaningful moments with your middle schooler where they feel safe to be vulnerable. And just because they checked in with you about their life, goals, feelings, and struggles last year or even a few months ago doesn’t mean there’s no need to encourage another check-in; nothing in the human experience is static—definitely not in the formative middle school era.

If your family is fortunate enough that the holiday season has historically been a tranquil time of year, this is a great opportunity to instigate conversations while your preteen is relaxed and experiencing few stresses.

On the other hand, if there are memories or events associated with the holidays that bring your family stress or unhappiness, an earnest connection with their parents might help soften those negative feelings for a teenager.

Either way, it’s important that they know they’re in a space that’s receptive, with an active listener rather than a reactive responder, and the conversation is judgment-free.

Open-ended questions for middle school students

Any parent is all too familiar—and probably more than a little guilty—of falling into the infamous “how was your day?” conversation rut. When your teen mumbles a one-word answer without looking up, it’s easy to feel powerless. What types of questions prompt thoughtful, in-depth answers from a preteen?

Try to avoid questions that can be easily responded to with one-worded answers. But remember, no one should feel interrogated here, and even if your preteen doesn’t respond with the soul-baring monologue you hope for, that doesn’t mean that they or you are failing at the conversation.

Your open-ended questions can pertain to hobbies, schoolwork, extracurriculars, or just whatever’s happening around you in the world. Starting a conversation off with school-related questions is easy enough, but who wants to talk about school during Thanksgiving? You may have better luck connecting about topics of interest to them. Keep a note page in your phone where you jot down things that might spark curiosity from your middle schooler as a conversation opener. Here are a few examples:

  • I saw on the news that someone won the lottery. What would you do with $1,000?
  • Summer’s going to be here before we know it. If you could pick our next family vacation, where would we go?
  • Christmas is coming up! What is on your list this year?
  • You’ve gotten to spend some time with your friends this semester. Whose house do you like going to the most and why?

And while these are fun questions to start with, you probably do want to check in about other aspects of your child’s life. Here are a few suggestions to shift the conversations to school, dating, and friendships:

  • When you were little you wanted to be ___ when you grew up! How do you feel about that now?
  • What skill would you like to learn?
  • Would you rather have 15 friends or two best friends?
  • Are you interested in anyone right now?

Creating a comfortable talking space for middle schoolers

It’s perfectly okay for a parent to long for more prolonged conversation with their preteens. You may just miss how talkative they were when they were younger, or maybe you’re concerned about potential problems in their academic or personal lives. Before you command your 13 year old to sit on the couch for a talk, take how you’d want to be approached as a teen into careful consideration.

Remember that your middle schooler should not be forced into conversation if there isn’t an immediate concern about their safety. Children aren’t obligated to be in a talkative or good mood at all times, so if they are clearly not in the space for words, show them support through your silent presence and hold off until they’re in a better headspace.

Being sat down interrogation-style is also very unlikely to be successful; your teen may feel like they’ve done something wrong and become defensive or guarded, which is not your goal when you just want to connect with them. Thanksgiving may be a time for large family gatherings, but teenagers may feel equally uncomfortable if you try to spark in-depth conversations around others, especially extended family members. There are likely things about their life, struggles, thoughts, or feelings that they are comfortable sharing with you but not their great aunt.

Instead, just ask your teen to come help you peel potatoes and use the quiet moment in the kitchen to check in while the rest of the family watches football. Your teen may appreciate the busy hands as a way to fill the silence between words and the lack of pressure to make eye contact.

And lastly, active listening is important! If your teen says something that you’re burning to react to and are only thinking of giving your rebuttal as soon as they pause for a breath, then you are not listening to their words. If your teen is sharing about how much they dread science class and they mention a D grade that you didn’t know about, listen to their overall message—that science is hard and that they need help—rather than reacting to the bad grade. Remember that being told about things like bad grades means that your middle schooler is feeling safe and trusts you.

Connecting with a middle schooler can be a challenge at times. But with enough patience, it’s possible. You can do it! You just have to set your mind to it—and endure through the occasional grunt, eyeroll, and groan.